It is called the Sustainability in Prisons Project, and since it began in the US state of Washington, the project has successfully combined nature conservation and prisoner rehabilitation. Their philosophy: prisoners are collaborators, not laborers, working on experiments of great scientific value. In the process of helping understand and improve natural environments, they themselves experience improvements in ability, knowledge, and self image. And as a side effect to all that, the public image of inmates improves as people come to see them as more than just people who have nothing to contribute to society.
When the project began in 2008, SPP was created to answer a call by state government to improve the sustainability (and therefore reduce costs) of prisons. The organization took things a step further than recycling, saving energy, and building green structures, they sought to connect scientists and conservation specialists with incarcerated offenders. They apply to be part of conversation projects, they receive training, and there is even a small financial compensation for their work. Successful projects have included the conservation of butterflies, frogs, flowering plants and moss. The discoveries that result from inmate projects have even gained interest and notoriety in the scientific community, which means some inmates have become co-authors on published research articles.
In terms of benefits for the prison, besides scientific recognition, the rate of recidivism in participating prisons is significantly lower. Less than 1% of prisoners who have participated in lectures alone wind up back in prison after release. Former participants also show a higher rate of finding employment after being released. Compare that with the high unemployment rate among former convicts as well as the recidivism rate of over 10% nation wide, and it is clear that science plus inmates equals good things for all parties involved.
Photo: Kathleen Phillips on agrilifetoday / flickr